The whiskey was warm. He didn’t care. Whiskey was whiskey.
It burned his throat as he swallowed it. A dry, slow burning. He didn’t care.
The glass made a low thud as it hit the oak of the counter; droplets of whiskey splashing against the surface and dripping off the edges. The bottle-once full-was now half empty, standing to the corner of his eyes.
It wasn’t a very expensive whiskey. Cheap stuff. You could buy it from the local liquor store just off the highway. That’s what he liked about it.
Whiskey was whiskey, after all.
The bar scene was empty. An hour had gone by after the evening crowds rolled in. He could not recall the time they had come in, or when they had left. The only evidence of more life mingling about the bar were a few smoking cigarettes shoved into an ashtray and a tipped over barstool laying out of place in a corner just past the basement door.
The after-show of the big game was still on the TV. Albeit sometimes jumbled and fuzzy. Words slurring back and forth into new words or sometimes new alien languages. The TV was old. Bartender lugged it in from his basement and decided to let it gather dust up here. He always said they should fix it, but money was tight and expenses were…well….
He never finished the thought. His head hurt-a symphonious sound of drums only that he could hear playing low in his temple. His palms grew sweaty, fumbling with a page of the newspaper left on the counter. He shivered, blown by an invisible chill. His eyes glanced around the small radius of which they were accustomed.
Palms drenched in perspiration, he picked up the glass bottle, eyeing the light brown whiskey ripple inside. He tipped the bottle; the whiskey splashing into the shot glass.
With his trembling hands, he raised the glass to his dry lips and quickly drank down the liquid. The burning he had become used to by now.
As the feeling of pain rolled away, he glanced slowly around the bar, feeling nauseas with every light swing.
The bar was, or course, empty. Well, except for him and the bartender, who was busy taking stock of the bottles left in the little overhead racks holding the drinks.
The bartender was new. At least, to him it seemed. The other bartender-the one who poured the whiskey with some dry joke or stocked the bottles with some look of grimace on his old tired face- was gone. Vacation, he had heard from talk around the other bar-flies.
He liked the old bartender. The guy was old, about 60 or something. He wore the same clothing day in and day out. An old white shirt and a pair of beat-up overalls which he wore under a brown coat. He was a tall guy, skinny like a neck of a bottle of beer. The old guy would let him in, get some drinks and stumble back to his dorm.
Sure, the old guy had seeing problems. Made it easy for a minor like him to sneak in. He was 18, all he had to do was simply not shave for about a few days and he could pass for 21. The ID he made off a buddy who lived out back the Macy’s downtown in a van. Weird guy, but the deals were good and he got money and he got drinks.
Win-win, he thought.
But, all of that aside, this new bartender seemed more….upbeat. A young guy, about 23 or so. Nice combed-back blond hair, tall, skinny and wearing a bright white apron he had found in the closet. Whistled as he poured and whistled as he took stock.
Why someone would be so cheerful serving drinks to some bums with spare change, he would never know.
Feeling the throbbing come back, he reached for his glass; delicately picking it up as he tilted the bottle. A small stream of whiskey, just enough to form more than a puddle at the bottom of the glass, spilled out.
Great. Another dry-one.
He looked over at the barkeep. Still whistling cheerfully as he wrote numbers down on a stained notepad. Time to get him to do his job.
“Bar….barkeep!” He shouted, words slurring slowly from his mouth. “More….more…god….juice this way!”
The barkeep turned around. Rather than storm over and stick a bony figure in his chest and bark some stupid rule out before kicking him to the curb, he simply smiled and put the notepad down.
He grabbed a large bottle of bourbon, strutting over with it. “Made in Smith’s Grove, Kentucky. Black Dog Bourbon. For those with a Bite” he said, proudly reading the label.
Now, quite frankly he couldn’t care less what the name of this stuff was, all he wanted to know that it would be in his glass or else this barkeep would lose some of those pearly-whites of his.
The barkeep opened the bottle, spilling the contents into the glass. He poured a small amount into it. Small, but enough.
“Be careful, man” The barkeep said, taking out a dirty green rag and wiped down the counter. “Strong stuff”
You shot him a glare, slugging down the drink.
Strong stuff. Burned more than the whiskey that was for true.
The barkeep stares at the counter, wiping it down in slow and easy motions. He seems to be rambling an old folk song under his breath, tapping his finger along the metal bar of the counter in rhythm.
The TV above the barkeep’s head had switched to an advertising channel. One of those channels playing nothing but advertisements and whatnot to the tune of odd, yet familiar-sounding music. They were selling old phones just down past the college. The music was an orchestra beat, echoing loudly through the empty room. A slow scene of a 1986 desk phone revolving around on a platform was shown, extra parts laid aside it.
The barkeep reached up, turned the TV down a bit and looked up at you. He had a warm smile on his face, bright brown eyes as large as the rim of the glass stared at you.
“So…” He said in a cheerful tone, yet sounding questioning. “What’s your story?”
“Yes. Why are you here?”
“Why are you here?” That sounded like a stupid question. To drink. A man doesn’t drink alone happy. He doesn’t drink alone with a smile.
He drinks to forget. He drinks to numb. He drinks to instill a memory to replace many more.
But it never works. If it did, he wouldn’t be here right now. He would be asleep in his dorm or…or…maybe…
No. They won’t. Not after what happened. And that was why he was here so often. Drink down the memory.
But, as said, it never worked. All he needed though was more bourbon. It would work in time.
“Uh….just here to get away…”
The barkeep seemed puzzled. His cheerful expression turned into a confused stare. “Get away from what?”
Quick. Think of something fast.
“Uh…life, you know. Real busy out there”
“Rat race, huh?”
He faked a smile, sipping down the bourbon. “Yeah…”
The bartender nodded and turned the TV back up, going back to his repetitive chore. The TV was now playing an advertisement for horse figurines. Old silver statues of horses in glass cases stood where the phones once stood. A sound of church organ music accompanied the advertisement.
“Where are you from?” The bartender said, resting a shoulder on the counter.
“Wh…what is this? Twenty Questions…?” He slurred, drops of bourbon spilling from his lips.
“Where are you from?” The barkeep asked again, cheerful yet firm.
“Uh….let’s just say out-of-town…that’s all”
“Really?” The bartender tapped the counter with his ring finger, almost thinking he was being lied to.
He shrugged, sipping down his drink. “Say, what’s my tab?”
“Tab? Oh!” The barkeep pulled a list out of his pocket, along with a small pocket calculator. He wrote something down, other hand tapping out equations on the calculator’s dull colored screen. He stopped short, staring at the number he had formed.
“How long have you been coming here?”
“What do you mean?”
“How long have you come here? This bar?”
“Oh….uh…see…maybe once or twice a weekend…”
“Says here you owe…uh…let’s see…about $346.00 of expenses….adding the tax…”
“Whoa!” he slammed the empty glass on the table. “I just said to add up tonight’s tab, buddy. Not all the interest…”
The bartender simply stared. “What is the date today, man?”
“Uh….jeez, I dunno….May 31st…”
He nodded slowly, as if proving his point. “End of the month…time to call in…a reckoning, I guess”
“Listen…listen….I just need some more time….” He said, fumbling for an explanation or some kind of excuse. “I have no money on me at the moment and…”
“Do you have a job?”
He sighed, slumping forward on the table. “No….never needed one…”
“Uh….well, let’s just say I had some “cushion” to help me”
“You know…money. Big amount too. A few thousand…”
“Where is all that money?”
“Gone. Spent it”
He didn’t like the bartender’s tone. Nor did he like the way he was pestering him for information. Normally, and the bar being this empty, he would have slugged the bartender off his feet. But, tonight…well…he just couldn’t move.
“What kind of stuff?” The bartender retracted on his question. “My apologies for being so picky. How did you get all this money in the first place?”
“Man…listen, I don’t want to talk about it…”
“If you don’t. I am afraid I will cut you off…police would not be too happy seeing someone like you out in the middle of the night..”
He grimaced at the bartender with a cold stare. Either this or take the night bus back home.
“Okay….well….my old man’s dad…”
“Your grandfather, I presume?”
“Yes. See, he was a big guy up on the corporate chain…Vice President, I think. He died back about 5 years ago. Heart attack, was it? Maybe it was a stroke…”
The bartender nodded his head, listening to every word. The TV was off now, leaving the only source of sound in the dead empty bar was the man’s slurring mouth.
“When he kicked the bucket, he left my old man roughly….maybe…ten thousand dollars in his will. He was his only son and guess he wanted him to be happy….”
“How was your father?”
“Eh. Strict, for a better word. Never let me do anything. No parties with friends. No hanging out after 10….man, he was a….”
The barkeep stopped him. “Just continue on…”
“Where was I…?” He paused trying to piece the memory together. Like a jigsaw puzzle of words constantly rearranging themselves in his head.
“Oh yeah….my dad knew we were going to college soon and gave us a cut each to get started….me, my brother and my oldest sister.”
“Your siblings? Where are they?” he put emphasizes on the word “they”, as if joking at him. Saying, for a better term, “you lonely old drunk”.
“Oh, my brother went off to Computer College or something. Always loved electronics. When we were younger, I was 16 and he was 18, he spent all this time in the attic of our garage. Empty place before he stocked it with old computer monitors and circuits and transistors. He built a weird little computer or something once. Didn’t too much, just slid a punch card in through a little slot and the computer would read it out. But he thought it was impressive. And so did the Board of Administrations.”
“Where is your brother?”
“Back home in New York, from what I hear. Studying transistor-based circuitry or whatever. Forgot his number back home. He won’t help me either besides.”
“My sister was…well…an artist, sort to speak.”
“An artist? Oh, did she paint murals or just sketch?”
“None of them. She did “installations”.
“Yeah, that art that-her words, not mine- “defined dimension and space to broaden the narrowing perception of man and art”. Well, she made this…uh…sculpture out of old steel wire and some of my brother’s old wiring systems”
“What was it?”
“I have no idea…” He sipped more down, no longer caring to use the glass of which his hands had held for so long. “This geometric structure that always seemed to change before your eyes. One moment you are staring through it, move a bit to your left and you are staring below it…weird stuff. She actually made some money making them, did you know?”
He set the bottle down on the counter, shaking his head. “Went somewhere down in Pennsylvania. For art or something. I think she is in a band too…would have went to see her, but…”
He closed his eyes and took a deep exhale, casting a smell of liquor and cigarette smoke waft from his maw.
“I went out here, looking for a college on…er…well, whatever I liked I would choose…”
“I guess…” his eyes rolled back and forth as he spoke. “Had a ton of money and nothing to do with it…”
“Which brings me back to the question at hand…” The bartender said. “What happened?”
“Met a couple of guys off the campus. Drove around in a beat-up Volkswagen bus. Covered in graffiti and rusted from the headlights to the trunk. I met one during a walk around campus. Man, was he nuts! Had sunglasses on with spikey messed-up hair and was swigging old Jack Daniels from a flask. Don’t know how, but we started talking and…”
“Things were alright. Went to bars, got drunk off of cheap swill, spend the summer nights driving around the city like a group of drifters. No purpose. No idea. Just the road.” He said, almost fashioning it into a poem.
“Then, the trouble started. Those guys got a little too “extravagant”. Nothing like drugs or illegal stuff. Just began running up tabs. One time, we ran up a tab of over 600 dollars in one night…heh….but I always bailed the tabs out. Slid a little interest to cover up tracks if we needed to”
He got real quiet for a minute, eyeing the glass and bottle as if they were temptations. “My old man found out from some old swill-jockey in a dive bar…”
“He called me back home. I drove the 2 hours back home in the old bus…wasn’t exactly a happy reunion…”
He swallowed hard and stared down at his folded hands. “I said some things in an argument….pretty rough things…got mad and smashed a hole in the wall with my fist…can’t recall the rest, guess I stormed out…”
There was an eerie pause. Tension filled the room, ready to snap at any time.
“Came back…stopped outside this bar and…well, ran up tabs. Swallowing my past with a dry future of rye and whiskey…”
“How long was this ago?”
“Give or take a year. I never called. He never did. And it stayed like that…”
“Did you not call?”
“What? Call him up and try to blow over something like that? Huh, good luck with that, buddy…”
“How do you know he wouldn’t be mad?”
“I know he will be. Broke, jobless and running on booze and broken dreams. While my brother builds computers and my sister makes art…ugh…”
The bartender got up, looking at him confused. Or was it judgement. None of them lasted, as he got up and walked back to the office in the back. He returned, holding something under his arm.
“How long has it been since you went to church?”
“Jeez…I dunno. Haven’t met that old Father back home in ages…”
The barkeep nodded. “Do you know Luke 15?”
“Ah, I see. Do you know the parable of the Prodigal Son?”
“Maybe. Jog my memory a bit...”
“Well, to sum it up in layman’s speak, it’s more or less about a son that spends his father’s estate money in wasteful ways. Drinking and whatnot. There is a famine and the kid, who lost his money, begins to starve.”
“This sounds odd…why are you telling me this?”
He ignored him. “He knows he has to go home, but fears his father will be angry when he learns what he’s been doing all these years. He goes home and learns that the old man welcomes him back and throws a feast to celebrate.”
“What? Again, why are you telling me…” His voice dropped as the words fell together.
“Ohhhh no, you won’t” he hissed coldly. “No way am I going home and facing that old nutcase. Not after what I did”
“How do you know?”
“I just…just do!” he slammed his fist down on the table. The glass clattered against the oak in an unsteady rhythm.
The barkeep sighed and opened the Bible he had tucked under his shoulder, laying it down in front of him.
“Here, man. Read it over. I won’t bother you with it anymore. Your choice, my friend”
He began to walk away, slinging the rag over his shoulder.
“Hey? Where….where are you going?”
“Back room. Call me if you need anything”
He sighed at the response. Thank God. Peace and quiet at last.
He reached for the bottle, hoping to polish off the rest. The thumping in his head was back again.
But, he couldn’t.
It was some odd feeling deep in his stomach. He looked down at the Bible, noting the stained pages and smell of beer from the covers. Opened to Luke 15…
Well, what’s the harm…?
He sighed and began to read it over. At first, the words seemed to slide together and make bizarre new phrases in some long-forgotten language. Then, it got easier. The words blended together again as normal. The haze of which he had been seeing slowly lifted.
He looked back down the counter. A small payphone was there, rigged against the wall. The back office door was open. A white apron laying on the floor. The exit door didn’t seem open. Like the guy just got up and vanished into thin air.
With a gulp of confidence and footsteps of lead, he sluggishly walked over to the payphone, fumbling for change in his pocket.
One quarter. Two quarters. Three quarters…
He held the receiver to his ear as his fingers carefully dialed the number. The numbers seemed to pop off the buttons. The ringtone was a comforting noise of endless dull beats.
In the empty bar in the empty street, the sun rose from the horizon. Streaks of red-orange lining in patterns across the mountains. The last stars faded away into the black night.
And in that empty bar that sat lonely and still under the rising sun, two soft hellos from one to another broke the silence.